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This movie won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Spacey) and Original Screenplay.

‘The Usual Suspects’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 18, 1995

"THE USUAL Suspects," starring Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey and a slew of others, is a smart-aleck murder mystery, the kind that layers itself with flashbacks, stories within stories and murky clues. You're supposed to follow its demanding convolutions like a knowing tango partner or, at least, one of those bespectacled movie-school nerds, right down to the gasp-inducing punch line.

It's intriguing for a while. The movie, written by Christopher McQuarrie and directed by Bryan Singer (together they made "Public Access," a former Sundance Film Festival winner), starts with a ship explosion and the following title: San Pedro, California—Last Night. Twenty-seven people (we learn later) are killed in the blast, and an estimated $91 million in cocaine (we also learn later) goes up with them.

The story jumps six weeks earlier, as the police haul in five criminals: ex-cop Byrne, sleepy-eyed cripple Spacey, as well as amusing henchmen Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak and Benicio Del Toro. After trading friendly insults and comparing notes (it's a small world, most of these guys know each other), the suspects realize they've been brought in on some trumped-up charge. When they're finally sprung—the authorities have nothing on them—the five decide to take a little revenge on the NYPD for the unceremonious indignity.

At this point, you sit back for an enjoyable, criminal version of "Mission: Impossible," in which crooks ingeniously get back at the bullying law. It's a great team to watch. Byrne is a moody mystery, a sort of Pat Riley with menace and an Irish lilt. Spacey, in stark contrast to his hyper roles of before, is a credible, slow-witted, over-chatty loser, who merits the nickname Verbal. Baldwin, who gets better with every movie, is a charmingly obnoxious joker. Pollak, as usual, works ironic one-liners into his role. And Del Toro is a weird gem, with his just-off-the-boat butchery of the English language.

The interest level holds out a little longer, as the five are pulled in again—this time by Pete Postlethwaite, a polite criminal who claims to represent a mysterious presence (whom they never see) called Keyser Soze. Soze, apparently a nasty crime lord from Hungary with a Machiavellian hand in everything from Belfast to Pakistan, has a deal to make.

Apparently all five have—in unintentional ways—stolen from Soze. They, in effect, "owe him." Soze—through Postlethwaite—gives them the opportunity to repay their debt and make some money besides. This is where the $91 million comes in.

Most of the action involving the five suspects occurs in flashback while Spacey is grilled by U.S. Customs agent Chazz Palminteri. And as Palminteri tries to pin down Soze's identity, the exploits of Byrne, Baldwin et al. become less important. The Spacey interrogation becomes the main event. But although the character matchup is interesting (the bullying inspector versus the unreliable creep), you miss those other engaging lowlifes; the movie's flashback-happy, time-bouncing structure feels like a long-winded interruption. Way before the grand finale (in which Keyser Soze's secret threatens to be revealed), it becomes clear that "The Usual Suspects" is nothing more than an over-designed lobster pot. After following the beckoning twists and turns, you're left trapped and more than a little disappointed for getting in so deep.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (R) — Contains profanity and violence.

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